Among the reforms of the Church during and after the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, was that of an often misunderstood spiritual principle called “Indulgences.”
When one mentions the word in the context of Catholic history our mind goes immediately to Martin Luther and his grievance against the alleged practice of the Church in the 16th century of selling indulgences or blessings in order to fill the coffers of the Vatican. History does tell us accurately, that a portion of the funds needed to build the Basilica of St. Peter at the Vatican were gathered from this practice that appeared to be what it really wasn’t.
The truth is that indulgences were not sold directly. What was offered in return for a charitable practice and a financial donation in kind, was the guarantee that one could gain an indulgence and either receive the spiritual benefit of time off in Purgatory or perhaps skip that stage of final purification all together after death. The more charity offered, the more money given towards the work of the Church, the greater the spiritual benefit gained from the indulgence. So was the thinking. Scandal? - Yes, of course.
The Council of Trent, held sporadically from 1545 – 1563, initiated severe reforms for the Church in response to the challenge of Protestant reformers. Among those reforms was a review of the practice of indulgences. No longer was money attached to their imposition or benefit for the faithful. To sell blessed articles or to attach any monetary obligation to such things was forbidden. The sin of simony was named if one did such things or attempted to buy ecclesiastical office or sacraments.
So, we do not charge for sacraments or blessings and offer no privileged spiritual benefit to the rich over the poor. If a parishioner offers a gift to the priest in exchange for his services say at a wedding then he can accept that gift. But it is never asked for or expected or required. In addition, one normally offers a fee when a Mass intention is requested. But the fee is not to buy the Mass because the intention is still accepted whether the $10 is offered or not. The Mass “stipend” may be taken by the priest or not since it is given to him as part of his salary. Either way the Mass is still offered.
In regards to Vatican II and indulgences, Pope Paul VI offered further reforms that create a clearer understanding.
Essentially, the Church is telling us that the graces and merits of the Blessed Mother and the Saints are available to all. There is a kind of spiritual treasury that lies open to everyone. We can and should pray for those who have died – our prayers, our sacrifices for them do make a difference (Communion of saints). In the early centuries of Christianity, when people commonly did public penance and stood outside the Church asking passersby to pray for them, if the penitent did some special pious exercise or act of charity him/herself, their time for public penance was shortened. They were “indulged” with less time for penance.
That principle is behind our belief in the efficacy of our prayers and of those who have gone before us. Many saints did more than they needed to do for their own salvation so the Church looks upon those good works and charitable intentions as part of the spiritual treasure of the Church.
We now can gain either a partial or plenary indulgence. The partial indulgence offers a portion of forgiveness for the temporal punishment of sin and a plenary takes away all of that punishment. Even though a sin is forgiven, there may still need to be damage control or further penance done as a result of that sin. (A parent forgives their child but they still have to carry out some punishment: temporal punishment due to sin.)
In this Year of Faith, our Holy Father Benedict XVI has offered the opportunity to gain a Plenary Indulgence. How can one do so?
In general the gaining of an indulgence requires certain conditions:
One must be in the state of grace before God, at least at the time the indulgenced work is completed. Therefore the Sacrament of Reconciliation is necessary for anyone who seeks the indulgence no matter what their spiritual state.
- Have the interior disposition of complete detachment from all sin.
- Have gone to confession
- Receive the Holy Eucharist
- Pray for the intentions of the Pope
- Have a heart for charity and act accordingly
No money is attached to these requirements and neither is it expected. This purely spiritual practice is in line with the Scriptures and a belief in the overwhelming mercy of God who desires that we live a life that is holy.
I for one see this as a reassuring benefit that is neither magic nor superstition. It is an opportunity to take advantage of God’s love. To receive from our Father in heaven the goodness he wishes to share with us for our benefit.
So, let yourself be “indulged” by this God who loves you enough to forgive our waywardness and call us back to himself.